Reaching out in faith: witnessing and proclaiming as a missionary disciple
By Fr. Frank DeSiano, CSP
President, Paulist Evangelization Ministries
The two key aspects of the life of each missionary disciple are witnessing to one’s faith by one’s lifestyle and, when the situation presents itself, proclaiming the Gospel. These actions are integral to forming a Catholic identity based on one’s baptismal responsibilities to partner with Christ in carrying out his Great Commission. This essay explores various ways of witnessing and proclaiming in order to invite and welcome those who are not yet around the Eucharistic table.
If someone asked you what you believe, how comfortable would you be answering the question?
Facilitators often use the phrase “elevator speech” as a way to get their audience to think in concise terms about what the essence of their organization or ministry is about. “Imagine you were in an elevator and someone asked you what you did. How would you respond before the elevator ride ended?” Of course, some of us might want to be in a very tall building to give us time to think; others might want a very short building so the ride would end almost immediately.
Although Catholics who practice their faith regularly hear about faith all the time, it’s surprisingly difficult to try to say what it is we believe. We could, of course, recite the Creed we say on Sunday, but that might puzzle us, not to mention others, as well. “God from God, Light from Light…“ We say these words often without thinking, part of the many formulas of our faith that make faith seem automatic. That automatic quality disappears, however, when it comes time to answer the question someone might ask us: “What do you believe? In your own words?”
Pope Francis in “The Joy of the Gospel” gives a short synopsis of faith:
On the lips of the catechist the first proclamation must ring out over and over: “Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you” (#164).
This short formula opens up dimensions of what our Catholic faith is about—but how do we elaborate these dimensions? The first dimension is the love of God shown in Jesus Christ. “Jesus Christ loves you.” The second dimension concerns salvation. Why did Jesus have to die? Why do I need to be saved? What does that mean? And the final dimension concerns the effects of Jesus’ saving action: we are enlightened, strengthened, and liberated.
Naturally, there are many other elements to our faith—creation, the Church, the sacraments, heaven and hell—but the three dimensions given in “The Joy of the Gospel” can provide a starting point for our own absorption of the meaning of our Catholic faith. The key is to make these more than words; we need to relate the elements of our faith to our own human and personal experience. Only when we do this will it be possible for us to give our elevator speech about our faith. Only when we do this will we have something to say to others when it comes time to share our faith.
The first dimension involves God’s love for us… and, necessarily, our experience of God’s love in Jesus and the Holy Spirit. We all casually affirm God’s love. “God loves everyone.” “God loves the world.” These phrases just roll off our lips.
But how might we say we have experienced this love of God? How has this love of God been felt in our lives? This is much harder for Catholics to articulate—until we take some time and begin to inventory all the signs and affirmations of God’s love that surround us. Beyond these daily experiences of God’s love, what about those exceptional moments when God’s love seemed to flow through us in an overwhelming realization?
Most of us know God’s love through the gifts God has given us and through the relationships that have become precious in our lives. Parents, for example, have a vivid sense of divine love with the birth of their children and, even more, as they see their children grow year by year. When disciples are involved in serving others, likewise there’s an experience of divine love; indeed, the love we show the poor and hurting gives us a powerful metaphor to begin to see God’s love. For our love, strong as it might be, seems like a shadow when compared to God’s love.
Yet on top of these experiences of divine love that come with everyday experience, almost all believers have exceptional experiences of God’s presence and love as well. Catholics honor mystics such as St. Teresa of Avila or St. John of the Cross, sometimes giving the impression that mystical experience—that sense of direct contact with God—is rather rare. Yet cannot all Catholics point to a moment when they sense God directly touching them, almost transporting them into another sphere of existence? Perhaps in their dreaming, or even their daydreaming, or as part of a retreat, or even a walk on a beautiful day—most Catholics can point to moments of something very much like ecstasy.
How would you say God has shown you love?
The second dimension that “The Joy of the Gospel” points to concerns the experience of being saved. Jesus “gave his life to save you.” These two ideas correlate to each other: when we acknowledge our need of salvation, we see why Jesus gave himself to us.
Modern life tries its best to make us feel that we are in control, that all we want is at our fingertips. We have almost two centuries of scientific advances to give us the impression that life can be… just fine! Thinking back when disease was rampant, when large percentages of mothers died giving childbirth, when living to forty was exceptional, when people bathed rarely and lived hand to mouth… in a world like this, the need for salvation stared us in the face. But now many of us live surrounded by devices to make our lives easier, in relatively pain-free years.
Yet we all have moments when we realize that modern advances have mostly covered over the true state of human existence; we have moments of fear, dread, and shame that cut to the center of our core. We feel like Peter, trying to walk on water, but knowing we can sink at any moment (Matthew 14:22 ff.). We thought it was all cozy and fine, but suddenly we realized that we live with an underlying anxiety that cannot be relieved. We come out of nowhere into existence; we walk on eggshells during our existence; we await the moment when everything precious will vanish in just an imperceptible second. Try as we might to hide this underlying, unresolved ground of human living, almost all our movies and novels explore just this tentativeness of our lives—art uncovers what we attempt to hide.
Everyone, as well, gets floored by guilt. Sure, we have times when we feel badly about what we did, particularly when our behavior has disrupted an important relationship. When we are caught stealing or lying, when we are exposed as frauds—we feel terrible. But even behind this, human experience is haunted by a sense of underlying failure and inadequacy, of having failed in a fundamental way that cannot be corrected. This sense of inadequacy and failure certainly drives a lot of human behavior into patterns of addiction, rage, and pride. When we read of Adam shamefully leaving the garden, with only fig leaves to give him dignity, we see the inside of our selves.
Jesus “gave himself” to us, to our brokenness, to our dread, to our shame, and to our unrelievable guilt. Taking on our human nature, experiencing the very darkness we spend most of our lives trying to avoid or deny, lifting them on a cross of pain and shame, Jesus holds before us the mirror of our dread. He shows us exactly why we need salvation. He says: here is your fractured and frail human existence, held up before the world and before your very eyes. He takes it to himself and, then, brings it to the Father for resurrection and reconciliation.
When Jesus rises, he gives humankind the opportunity to transcend, for once and for all, the limitations of death and sin. He saves us by giving himself to what is most corruptible in us and, then, bringing us beyond that to a wholeness and mercy for which we dream.
On one or another level, every believer has recognized this salvation in her or his life. Every one of us has had our souls broken open, intuited a profound abyss, tasted death’s bitter tears. From these experiences, we come to Christ, clinging to him so closely that he shares his life with us—his risen life, now a gift to all of humankind. Every one of us can answer the question: how have you felt the saving power of Jesus? This is what we acknowledge about ourselves, and this is what we can share with others.
How would I put that into words?
Jesus doesn’t just stand outside of us, showing us his victory. Rather, he pours the Holy Spirit of God—the very love of God’s eternal life—into us so that he can bring about in us the saving splendor that he won in his dying and rising. We call this “the sending of the Holy Spirit.”
How does the Spirit work? By bringing about changes and powers in our lives in such a way that we live Jesus’ life more fully. “The Joy of the Gospel” says that Jesus is by our side (that is, abides with us) in order to enlighten, strengthen, and liberate us. The effect of God’s love through Jesus Christ is the transformation of our lives through insight and virtues which, in turn, liberate us from the fears and pettiness that otherwise define our existence.
Jesus strengthens by the gifts of the Holy Spirit—the virtues of faith, hope, and love, and all the other virtues that derive from them—gifts that bring us the capacity to live for God in Christ Jesus. We receive these gifts as a steady bestowal in our lives. Jesus stands by our side, always in the unfailing love of God, filling us with powers that transform us. It may take us a lifetime to receive these powers in the capacity in which we need them, but they continue to make us grow so long as our hearts are open to Christ. In faith, we see anew with the vision of the Kingdom; in hope, we strive ever renewed for the fullness of the Kingdom; in love, we give ourselves, as Jesus did, to the promise of the Kingdom.
Indeed, this is where we find liberation. As Pope Francis puts it: “Those who accept [Jesus’] offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew” (“The Joy of the Gospel,” #1). The gifts Christ pours into us address the very factors that rob life of meaning—from sin all the way to our unrelenting feelings of emptiness. This liberation frees us, in turn, to be liberating agents in the lives of others, to be agents of the Kingdom, to be ambassadors of mercy, peace, Good News, and God’s grace.
Much as we might feel the salvation we seek is never accomplished, God’s presence in Jesus and power in the Spirit keep surprising us with his unexpected, and needed, grace.
How might I describe to someone else the way my faith has freed me from my own burdens for the service of others?